Archive for the ‘science fiction’ category


March 23, 2014

20140323-202716.jpgThere are five factions in the futuristic society of Divergent, and it just figures that the heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), would pick the Dauntless faction. The Dauntless are society’s warriors and protectors, and thus are subject to grueling training designed to test an initiate’s courage. When not training, the Dauntless while away the afternoons by running around, climbing things, and jumping off other things. What if Tris had chosen the Erudites, the smarties of society? Would her training consist of harrowing, highly cinematic algebra quizzes? Or what if she’d opted for Amity, the people who work the land and are noted for their kindness? Would we have an $80 million blockbuster about how Tris must face the horrific final test — being nice to cranky customers at a farmers’ market?

As it is, Divergent might as well be called Dauntless, because for most of the running time, Tris, who was born into the Abnegation faction (selfless people who help others), takes many beatings and worries incessantly about not making the cut in her Dauntless training. (Those who flunk out become “factionless,” denied the option to return home or to try their luck in another faction.) Tris, though, is a special snowflake: she’s a Divergent, meaning that she — gasp! — has more than one trait. She could fit in with Abnegation, Dauntless, or Erudite. So she’s really dangerous to this post-apocalyptic society that has arranged everyone according to dominant trait to “preserve the peace.”

I don’t really get what any of that has to do with peace. Maybe it’s explained in Veronica Roth’s trilogy of books, which I haven’t read and, judging by my boredom with the movie, will probably skip. It’s really just an elaborate metaphor for Being Your Own Beautiful Self, which apparently goes over well with readers of a certain tender age. Divergent has been compared to The Hunger Games, but at least Suzanne Collins’ fantasy had some sort of real-world relevance, even edging up to social satire. But Divergent‘s concerns seem largely solipsistic — there’s little or no larger meaning to it at all. Unlike Katniss Everdeen, who survived and became an inspiration due to a combination of luck, guts, brains and compassion, Tris just hits the genetic lottery, which is hazardous to her in the short term but will likely shake out with her as the heroine of a newly diverse and less regimented society by the third movie.

There’s little or no filmmaking excitement in Divergent, either. The director is Neil Burger, a journeyman hack who merely points and shoots, never pausing to take in beauty or terror. There’s a tiny bit of both in sequences in which Tris and, later, her Dauntless trainer and love interest Four (Theo James) submit to chemically-induced hallucinations of their deepest fears. Apparently Tris is scared of birds, fire, and drowning, while Four dislikes heights. The hallucinations at least pack a slight visual-surreal charge mostly absent from the rest of the movie, which unfolds in the gunmetal-blue Dauntless quarters or in sterile offices. I sensed no connection between Burger and this material, no urgency on his part to tell this story and open up its truths.

The gentle-featured Woodley is fine and humble as the heroine, and Kate Winslet brings cold efficiency to her performance as Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite leader who wants to overthrow the Abnegations’ control over society. I didn’t get that, either: the smart people want to go to war with the selfless people? Are this movie’s politics insane, or just nonexistent? I don’t see brainiacs like Neil deGrasse Tyson gunning for people like the Dalai Lama. Divergent also verges on saying the military is a mindless hive brainwashed by the Harvard-educated ruling class, which is more cynical than anything in The Hunger Games and an insult to ex-military men like Daniel Ellsberg. In short, the divvied-up society presented here makes no internal or subtextual sense. It doesn’t refer to anything other than a generic “fight the Man” theme — and, of course, the Man here is an intelligent woman. So, despite its kick-ass heroine, the movie doesn’t really diverge much from the standard path of Hollywood sexism at all.


January 13, 2014

her-FilmAre four feature films (and a multitude of innovative music videos) enough evidence to declare someone a master? Her, a hushed and vaguely futuristic love story, finds writer-director Spike Jonze at four for four, after 1999’s Being John Malkovich, 2002’s Adaptation, and 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are. All of these movies grapple with consciousness and identity while sustaining moods of playful inquiry, like droll philosophers spinning thought experiments. Her is what’s sometimes called “soft” science fiction, focusing on characters and emotion rather than hardware and convoluted world-building; it’s also a romance that questions what love is or can be. In this day-after-tomorrow universe, a man can say his girlfriend is his computer’s operating system and nobody finds it creepy.

Jonze creates a reality where the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), makes his living by writing love letters for those who don’t have words of their own. This idea of surrogate affection is a major theme of the movie; Her, like 2001, sees a future in which technology has vastly improved modes of communication but humans are still essentially monkeys who can’t talk, beholden to the archaic operating systems in their heads. Theodore is separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is dragging his feet on signing the divorce papers; he doesn’t want to let go of his identity as a husband, or at least as a man found worthy of being a husband. He’s trapped in his own head, using words to live a romantic dream vicariously through his clients.

Then he finds out about the latest hot thing — OS1, an operating system that can learn and respond and grow like a person, like Siri with a soul. Theodore’s new OS christens herself Samantha and has the smoky, cheerful voice of Scarlett Johansson, who along with the mopey but hopeful Phoenix builds one of the strangest and most honest romantic rapports in recent memory. Much of the time we’re watching Phoenix alone on the screen, but the movie invites us to envision Samantha alongside him (and she doesn’t necessarily look like Johansson in our heads). Samantha enjoys organizing Theodore’s life, and he enjoys her company; they take each other out for “Sunday adventures,” with Samantha seeing through the camera in Theodore’s handheld device.

With someone like Spike Jonze at the helm, we feel reassured that Her won’t go anywhere predictable or add stupid supposedly-comedic complications to the story, and it doesn’t. It sticks to its premise and goes deeper and expands there. Samantha wants more; she feels slighted by not being a physical presence in Theodore’s life. The surrogacy motif recurs when Samantha hires a woman (Portia Doubleday) to be Samantha’s body, and the episode is both funny and saddening — Theodore can’t get out of his head, can’t reconcile the physical woman in front of him with the Samantha in his imagination. It creeps him out on a number of levels, and the woman departs tearfully. We almost want to follow her into her own movie; we want to know what kind of woman (or man) wants to be a physical surrogate for an OS. Meanwhile, Theodore is more or less ignoring a real physical woman in his view, his old friend Amy (Amy Adams), a videogame developer, who has forged a friendship with her ex-husband’s female OS. All of this feels emotionally plausible; Jonze never pushes it into inelegant farce.

Her takes the premise to its logical conclusion, which involves evolution and the digital shade of philosopher Alan Watts (voice by Brian Cox). That’s a key to the movie right there: Watts liked to peg himself as “a philosophical entertainer,” and that seems to be what Spike Jonze is up to. Jonze also writes sharp dialogue between Samantha and Theodore, emphasizing how unevolved he is and how fast she’s growing past him. Her ends on a sad but hopeful note, lingering on a shot of two humans dwarfed by the technological cityscape — monkeys in thrall to the Monolith. As for Samantha, or the higher consciousness, Watts put it best: “A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away.”


October 5, 2013

Sandra-Bullock-in-Gravity-2013-Movie-Image-2We could easily come up with a few legitimate complaints about Gravity. Emotionally, it’s a little pat. The film’s tagline — “Don’t let go” — resolves into that time-honored Hollywood bromide about life always finding a way. And along about the fifth or sixth crisis faced by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), we may think a better title for the movie might be The Perils of Sandra. Despite its comforting aspects, though, Gravity is a work of techno-art, with images of humbling grandeur and scenes almost painful in the depth of horror they evoke. The film’s climactic reassurances, though welcome on some level after the bone-shaking ride we’ve had, feel a little soft because the true takeaway from the experience is this: Space is very, very unforgiving. Don’t fuck with it.

We’re up there above Earth, floating and bobbing and revolving, along with Dr. Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is tinkering around on the outside of the space shuttle Explorer; this is her first time in space, and she’s nervous and nauseated. This is Kowalski’s last mission, and he scoots around in his Manned Maneuvering Unit, his mood jocular and calming. Then the Explorer receives ominous news: the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, and the debris is heading for the Explorer with a powerful quickness. As the death-junk approaches, the music (by Steven Price) becomes a menacing paradox, huge yet needlingly intimate. This crap is coming for you, the score says, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Soon enough, the Explorer becomes a piñata, communication to Houston is cut off, Stone finds herself reeling through the inky void, and Kowalski doesn’t have a lot of juice left in his MMU. And you thought you had problems.

At first glance a minimalist survival nail-biter on the order of, say, Cast Away or Open Water, Gravity ratchets up the terror by observing the pitiless logic of physics. In this zero-gravity reality, people bounce off each other and go spinning heedlessly into hard, unyielding objects; the physicality is a little overwhelming — the smallest movement can have massive consequences. For every action, it seems in space, there is a wildly inequal and opposite reaction. To deal with this, career astronauts must possess a certain serenity under enormous danger and a certain outlook on life and death, perhaps born of seeing the world from a literally different perspective than most of us do. Clooney’s Kowalski never loses his cool, continuing to urge Stone on with lulling optimism even when his own situation looks bleak.

Some have lampooned Gravity as “Sandra Bullock screaming for 90 minutes.” I’m sorry if the marketing has made it seem that way — and most of what you’ve seen in the commercials happens in the first half hour — but that’s unfair to Bullock, an amiable comic actress who has been impressive in dramatic roles, never more so than here. Stone is our avatar; we share her fright and her awe. Bullock finds the spark in a woman who long ago, in the wake of a tragedy, gave herself up for dead. Gravity is, in part, about how Stone learns to value her life again, and that’s a bit of a bummer — we intuit her turn rather than feeling it. But that’s not Bullock’s fault; the script only has so much time to flesh out Stone’s background. When Stone starts to feel alive, Bullock becomes more animated; we can almost feel the heat of her flesh where the blood is flowing again. (Maybe it’s intellectual rejuvenation — rather than feeling powerless, Stone has a hallucinatory epiphany that these are mechanical problems she can think her way around and solve.)

Gravity is perhaps the magnum opus from director Alfonso Cuarón, who hasn’t made a feature since 2006’s Children of Men; he spent much of the intervening time working on this film. This director adores technical challenges, technical wizardry; the carnage-spattered long-take chase scene in Children of Men is deservedly legendary, and he lets his shots here sprawl and breathe and gather dread. Gene Siskel’s statement about Who Framed Roger Rabbit (“I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know”) applies just as accurately to the kind of magic Cuarón weaves. Not merely a cold craftsman, Cuarón shares with his confederates Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu a tough-minded humanism: people are imperfect and inhabit a hostile environment but strive anyway, and the striving itself is worth noting and making movies about. Nothing feels sadistic about the way Cuarón tightens the screws on his characters. He wants to view them in extremis — and more extreme than outer space you can’t get — because that’s where the story is. Gravity has some soft spots, probably best blamed on the marketplace demands of making a movie at the $100 million level, but it’s still a masterpiece, with appropriate respect for the vastness of the chessboard and the smallness of the pawns who can navigate it.


September 7, 2013

Karl-Urban-and-Vin-Diesel-in-Riddick-2013-Movie-Image-600x331The anti-hero Riddick, subject of three movies, an animated short, and numerous video games, is probably best suited to animated shorts and video games. I haven’t played the games, but I did enjoy Dark Fury, the 35-minute Peter Chung toon that served as a bridge between 2000’s Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. Like Conan the barbarian, Riddick is a surly loner and killer who gets pulled into adventures wherever he travels. As played by Vin Diesel, Riddick is also a cold cod whose purpose in life seems to be avoidance. He’s always being pursued — by mercenaries, by Necromongers, by slithery creatures. His function is to send his pursuers abruptly to the next life and then swagger onward. Such a character might fare nicely on a weekly animated series for young adults (or in a monthly comic book, where Conan has thrived on and off for decades), but he doesn’t hold a live-action film together very strongly.

The title of Riddick’s new adventure, just straight-up Riddick, is likely meant to signify a new simplicity, or, rather, a throwback to the old simplicity of Pitch Black. After all, The Chronicles of Riddick was a cluttered and garish thing, with respected actors like poor Judi Dench nattering on about Necromongers or the Underverse while Vin Diesel scowled in the shadows, his silver corneae glowing like the eyes of a sullen cat. Riddick dispenses with the reheated fantasy elements of its predecessor and takes Riddick back to gritty sci-fi, pitting him against phallic, venomous critters and then against two competing bands of mercenaries. Along the way he raises a dingo-like puppy, and if you remember what generally happens to people or animals Riddick grows to care about, you’ll know not to get attached to the dingo-like puppy.

Riddick is leaner and meaner than Chronicles, but that doesn’t necessarily translate as “more fun.” Once again, as in Pitch Black, Riddick defends himself — and, incidentally, the motley group he happens to be thrown in with — from monsters. It feels pointless; by the end, Riddick is better off than he was at the start, but nothing in particular has happened to change his character. He’s the same growly deep-bass sociopath he was in Pitch Black thirteen years ago. At least in Dark Fury and Chronicles he had an androgynous girl, grown up to be a bitter woman warrior, to care about and to worry that she might end up like him. Riddick seems like a side adventure, and the events of the previous movie are blown off in a flashback that puts Riddick back at square one. We feel like idiots for having been asked to invest in the events of Chronicles and in the idea that Riddick had been elevated to a position of importance.

Diesel and series creator/director David Twohy were adamant that Riddick, like Pitch Black, carry an R rating, which allows for a bit of gore and a peekaboo scene that’s so baldly there for fans of Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff that all I could think about was Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz (who fantasized about tubbing with Sackhoff in an episode) wearing out the Blu-ray when it arrived at his home. Sackhoff plays a nerdboy’s idea of a lesbian, a tough chick who beats the crap out of men; her name is Dahl, which phonetically means every guy in the movie appears to be calling her “doll,” and that’s essentially what she is. Aside from Riddick — who spends much of the middle third of the film ominously offscreen — the character who gets the most screen time is Santana (Jordi Molla), the scruffy leader of one of the merc teams. Santana is a dick but at least has some personality; nobody else does.

Vin Diesel, an unabashed fantasy/sci-fi geek, keeps trying to make genre franchises happen. Babylon AD didn’t work for him, and the Riddick series has proceeded in fits and starts — it’s been nearly a decade since the last film, and Diesel, who turned 46 this summer, is very much not getting any younger. He puts a lot of physical effort into these meathead movies he does (Furious 6, for the record, was much more fun), and there’s a valid question as to how much longer he can continue to do so. Diesel started off promisingly — I urge you to seek out his 1994 short film Multi-Facial on YouTube so you won’t think I’m insane when I say he’s really a good actor — but he got sidetracked into dumb Saturday-night blockbusters for teens, and he perhaps needs to stop working out (and stop listening to his agent) and do some genuine acting again. Riddick, which by all indications will be a box-office disappointment, may put the kibosh on at least one going concern that has kept Diesel in lucrative stasis.

The World’s End

August 31, 2013

130823154838-worlds-end-movie-still-story-topOnce again, Edgar Wright has directed the brightest bit of fun in a lugubrious summer. The World’s End starts out as a rueful where-have-the-years-gone comedy in the mold of Grosse Pointe Blank (complete with killer soundtrack) and somehow morphs into a mid-period John Carpenter sci-fi film (complete with stock-still antagonists whose eyes and mouths glow like Christine’s headlights, bisecting the wide frame with blue lens flares). Both movies within this movie are fresh and convivial, though the structure borrows from Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, in which the distracted protagonists were oblivious to the scope of the problem for a comically long time. Here, the problem is people in the town of Newton Haven being replaced by robots who shed blue blood (aristocrats?) and lose their limbs a tad too readily to be the terminators they seem to want to be.

Gary King (Simon Pegg), an alcoholic ne’er-do-well approaching forty, yearns for the golden year of 1990 — the year he and his four best mates from school tried and, alas, failed to drink their way through twelve pubs in a night. Gary contrives to convene the old lads again — Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) — though they’ve all moved on and become respectable. Gary’s epic idea is to re-enact the pub crawl, and finish it this time. Eventually the lads give in, knowing that arguing with Gary is futile. At the fourth pub in the crawl, it becomes fairly evident that all is not what it seems.

It’s entirely possible that, like Grosse Pointe Blank, The World’s End will resonate most directly and viscerally for those who were Gary’s age or thereabouts at the dawn of the ’90s. The bold strut, early on, of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (with its bite from Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! And we wanna get loaded!”) took me right back to college and assured me I was in good nostalgic hands. But the songs aren’t just Super Sounds of the ’90s; many of the tunes, like the one noted, express the film’s theme of pursuing freedom in the face of authority and conformity. Wright and Pegg, who again cowrote the script, tweak the other four fellows for putting their party days aside, but Gary emerges as the film’s saddest character, a freedom fighter in his own mind who in truth wears the thickest chains.

The movie casts Pegg and Frost against type: in their previous two efforts with Wright, Pegg was the uptight striver and Frost the dissolute screw-up, and here it’s the reverse. The scenes of Gary trying to reconnect with his resentful former best mate Andy play like a scrawnier Falstaff appealing in vain to the fond memories of Prince Hal. Gary is also the right age to have seen, memorized, and worn out the video of Withnail & I, though the film is sensibly never addressed here — we look at Gary and we know he sees himself as Withnail 2.0, sneering in the rain “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?,” though missing the tragic point of that famous scene. Pegg gives us a delusional anti-hero who develops into a deeply flawed hero and eventually, by movie’s end, a bona fide John Carpenter hero.

By turns, The World’s End is better-choreographed than most of what’s been passed off as action this summer; funnier than most comedies this season; and, at times, scarier than most horror films in the last few months — the scene involving Gary’s old flame Sam (Rosamund Pike) and a pair of twins is pretty creepy. It’s a full package of entertainment, genuflecting to the sci-fi of John Wyndham as well as to the cinema of John Carpenter (who adapted Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos). As in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright and Pegg love to mix their British and American pulp influences into one spiky drink. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hot Fuzz, feeling that Wright and Pegg were too smart to go on riffing on other creators’ work, but what they’ve done here feels personal, not so much derivative. There’s a sincere melancholy to it. You literally can’t go home again, nor, apparently, can you drink there the way you once did.


August 10, 2013

elysium8f-10-web“Late in the 21st century,” we’re told at the beginning of Elysium, “Earth is diseased, polluted, and vastly overpopulated.” Late? How about early in the 21st century? But Elysium’s director, Neill Blomkamp (District 9), has anticipated this objection: “This isn’t science fiction,” he has said. “This is today. This is now.” Okay, so “now” is 2154, and humanity has been divvied up into two categories. The rich and powerful live in Elysium, a shining Club Med in the stars, where well-fed but slim people relax in their pools and tuck themselves into a Med-Pod whenever illness comes knocking. The poor and powerless are stuck on Earth, slaving away as cogs in a military-industrial machine. Elysium is an unapologetic Occupy film on a grand scale, a 99%-vs.-1% heroic fable that I dearly wish was more satisfying. But the narrative proceeds in frustrating stops and starts, and it cribs from too many of its predecessors to stand alongside them honorably.

The hero is Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), a former felon turned scut-worker on the grungy skillet of Earth. Accidentally dosed with a massive amount of radiation at work, Max does not, to our surprise, turn into a Marvel superhero; he’s given five days to live (during which time his meds will keep him stabilized enough to continue working until he drops). Max’s only hope is to make it somehow to Elysium and avail himself of a Med-Pod, but, to paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply walk into Elysium; spacecrafts attempting to enter Elysium airspace illegally tend to get shot down. So Max and some fellow malcontents hatch a plot to sheathe the weakened Max in an exoskeleton, kidnap a CEO (William Fichtner), and transfer data from his brain to Max’s. A lot of our time seems to sink into watching Max trying to begin to prepare to go to Elysium, when what we want is to see him up there already, junk-punching one-percenters.

Damon is fine if a bit colorless, and when Max has a change of heart prompted by the cute-as-a-button leukemia-stricken daughter of his childhood sweetie, it’s more or less all over for Max as an interesting character. The little cherub regales Max with the story of a meerkat helped out by climbing a hippo, and Max asks “What’s in it for the hippo?” I longed for an anti-hero along the lines of S.D. Bob “Snake” Plissken, who wouldn’t ask that because he knows there’s nothing in it for the hippo. Snake was heroic inadvertently; Max is heroic because he’s at the center of a $98 million movie.

There’s more going on with satellite characters like Spider (Wagner Moura), a hacker who helps Max fill his head with data, and Fichtner’s CEO, a man of such faultless calm that he informs his security robots during the kidnapping, “They are armed. I would like them dead.” There’s also Sharlto Copley, star of Blomkamp’s District 9, as a scurvy and insane mercenary whose South African accent jabs the air with hostility and, on rare occasions, achieves comprehensibility. “I always wanted a woff,” he shouts; cut to me in the audience going “Wait, what? Is that futuristic dialect? … Oh. Oh, he means wife.” As for second-billed Jodie Foster, who plays the ice-blooded Secretary of Defense of Elysium, she has a fine old time developing her own goofy accent and luxuriating in suavely callous evil. Her performance will inevitably be summed up as “bad” in some quarters, but those quarters need to get out more often. She’s a hoot.

Blomkamp’s District 9, one of the best of its year, spun an intriguing allegory out of aliens living among humans. The characters were fresh, the viewpoint fresher. We welcomed a new voice to science-fiction cinema. But Elysium has no particular voice. It’s too clotted with plot and strategy. As with the recent Antiviral, the premise outpaces the lumbering story — we may ask why we’re watching this story. What’s life like on Elysium? It looks nice, but we never get to know anyone other than the hissable main villains. We barely get to know anyone on Earth, either. The way Blomkamp uses a dying little girl to pile urgency onto Max’s mission is cheap, as if we wouldn’t care about a dying adult. Visualized but not thought through, the bifurcated future society in Elysium ends up saying nothing more than Blade Runner — with its blimps touting “the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure” in off-world colonies — said with far more force and wit 31 summers ago.

The Wolverine

July 28, 2013

2013-movie-preview-the-wolverineWhen writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller collaborated on the four-issue Wolverine mini-series in 1982, it was more or less immediately received as the definitive Wolverine story, and in many quarters still retains that status. It took the X-Men’s runaway fan favorite and gave him new depth and vulnerability while keeping his mystique. In the story, Wolverine, or Logan, goes to Japan, where his old flame Mariko has been forced into marriage to an abusive weasel. The real villain of the tale is Mariko’s father Shingen, who gets into a teasing wooden-sword fight with a drugged Logan. About to lose the duel, Logan pops his razor-sharp adamantium claws to defend himself, and Logan’s narration explains that Shingen has manipulated this whole encounter to make Logan look cowardly in front of Mariko: “I couldn’t dishonor myself more in her eyes if I tried,” Logan mopes.

There’s nothing comparable to that painful moment in The Wolverine, which takes bits and pieces from the Claremont/Miller story — the Tokyo setting, some character names — but goes afield for a more sci-fi narrative in which Logan (Hugh Jackman) saves a Japanese soldier, Yashida, from being obliterated in Nagasaki in 1945, then is summoned to visit the now-dying man decades later. Yashida has become the head of a major tech corporation, and he has been trying to cheat death; Logan, with his mutant power of instant self-healing, may be the old guy’s ticket to immortality. Mariko now becomes Yashida’s granddaughter, and there’s no love or even much affection between her and Logan. So basically Logan is pulled into the story not by his heart but by a guy who’s afraid to die.

There’s also some gibberish involving a character named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who takes away Logan’s healing powers by breathing toxic fumes on him or something, and embedding some sort of spider around his heart. The movie does bring in the assassin Yukio (Rila Fukishima), who in the comics fell in love with Logan and was jealous of his sappy attachment to Mariko, but here comes across as a sexless anime cosplayer with a bright red wig. I don’t know how you start with such a simple, effective story as the Claremont/Miller series, take out whatever’s interesting, and throw in stuff that doesn’t belong in this or any story.

The director-for-hire here is James Mangold, who started out telling small, human stories (Heavy, Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, Walk the Line) and in recent years (Knight and Day and this) just seems to have given up. In Marvel Comics’ heyday, there was a cynical maxim: “You don’t work for comics unless you work for Marvel.” Nowadays it’s more like “You don’t work for Hollywood unless you work for Marvel.” The sequence most people will point to as a highlight unfolds atop a bullet train going 300 miles an hour, with Logan and various assassins stumbling around trying to stay attached to the roof with knives or claws. It’s fun, and contains some of the rare levity in an otherwise humorless movie, but it’s just there as an action beat; it doesn’t establish or strengthen character. All that money, all those CGI techs working into the night, and it doesn’t pack a fraction of the impact of a wooden-sword battle between two men in the comic.

So instead of working Logan’s emotions, the movie seeks to make him vulnerable by sapping his powers of healing. This means he gets shot and stabbed a bunch of times, but still doesn’t die. It also means that he somehow doesn’t bleed to death every time he pops his claws, which emerge from the backs of his hands; we’re to understand that in his usual mode, the flesh heals around the claws when they’re out and seals up again when he retracts the claws. The climax involves a huge Silver Samurai also made out of adamantium, and by then the movie has abandoned pretty much any interest in making this a story about Logan, or a story about anything.

Boldly photographed (by Ross Emery) and scored (by Marco Beltrami), The Wolverine at least looks like more of a real movie than the awful previous solo Logan effort, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. By virtue of basing itself glancingly upon one of the seminal Wolverine stories instead of one of the most useless and uncalled-for Wolverine stories, the movie gets comparatively high marks, but only because it follows such a stinker. And this is yet another comic-book movie in which dozens of people are slashed and stabbed to death and we see nary a pinprick’s worth of blood. In his early days, when comics still had to abide by the violence-phobic Comics Code, Logan had to get around becoming a mass murderer by subduing his enemies in more oblique ways. But in a PG-13 movie, apparently it’s perfectly fine for Logan to shish-kebab everyone within reach, as long as you don’t show the thirteen-year-olds of America what those claws would actually do to a human being — or to the powerless Logan’s hands, for that matter.

Pacific Rim

July 14, 2013

pacific-rimNow that Peter Jackson seems to be lost in Middle Earth until further notice, Guillermo del Toro is the most lovably rabid fan of monsters that cinema has. I like to imagine del Toro as a kid, slathering paint on his Aurora monster models, devouring dog-eared issues of Famous Monsters, and staging epic fights between his toy robots and his toy monsters, going “Rrrrgh” and “Dssssh” and other clash-of-the-plastic-titans sound effects that little kids vocalize. Unlike a hack like Michael Bay, who was only in the Transformers movies for the money, del Toro lives and breathes this stuff like mythopoetic oxygen.

Pacific Rim, del Toro’s first directing gig in five years, follows the blueprint of his other semi-mainstream stuff like Blade II and the two Hellboy films — it’s loud and bombastic, with copious imagination and perversity snuck through a side door. Time will tell if del Toro is still interested in making smaller, more intimate masterpieces like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, but at least here he shows he can play the game. Pacific Rim is del Toro back in his childhood bedroom, slamming his toys together in a gleeful death match. In one corner you have the kaiju, gigantic sea monsters who slither ashore and decimate entire cities. In the other corner you have the jaegers, gigantic mechas steered by two pilots joined by neural “drift.” Whenever a kaiju shows up — and they’re starting to show up with greater frequency — the jaegers drop in via helicopter and punch the everloving shit out of the kaiju. Rrrrgh! Dssssh!

There’s a bit of what, these days, is forlornly called “the human element” here. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a former master jaeger pilot, inactive for five years following the death of his brother and jaeger partner. Raleigh mopes around in construction — the world’s leaders have unwisely decided to build walls against the kaiju instead of continuing with the jaeger program — until his commanding officer, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), pulls him back in. Raleigh teams up with newbie pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who as a girl lost her family in a kaiju attack on Tokyo. There are other humans, like scientists Charlie Day (a kaiju enthusiast) and Burn Gorman (a mathematician), and various jaeger masters from different countries — it’s almost an Olympics of dragonslayers — and the highly amusing Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, who salvages kaiju organs and does a brisk black-market business out of Hong Kong.

But the script, credited to del Toro and Travis Beacham, isn’t overly convoluted; the filmmakers know why we’re there, and it isn’t necessarily to see the friction between Raleigh and a hotshot young Aussie pilot. No, we’re there to see rrrrgh and dssssh, and del Toro gives it to us on a massive scale, often with a rising line of adrenaline that translates in the awestruck moviegoer’s mind as “Holy fuckin’ SHIT.” Pacific Rim brings the wow and the chthonic thunder on a level that no other blockbuster this summer has managed. Still, del Toro is human, and he tosses in little gags and asides; a bit involving an executive desk toy stands out in my memory. The movie is rapturously sincere but never takes itself too seriously. At its peak efficiency it’s one king-hell good earth-shaking time.

And yet … I miss the del Toro who found beauty in all the rugose freaks in the Hellboy films, who wove tapestries of frightened good and nightmarish evil in his foreign-language films. The same anticipatory excitement that draws some of us to a giant-robot-vs.-giant-monster epic directed by Guillermo del Toro — how could it not be the awesomest thing ever? — ultimately leads to a bit of a letdown when it isn’t, in fact, the awesomest thing ever, but just relatively awesome: awesome relative to the movies that got it wrong (ahem, Transformers) and relative to the mostly wan franchise place-holders preceding it this season. If Pacific Rim, as del Toro intended, fires up kids’ imaginations and sends them running off to the better old Toho monster mashes or to the more recent Gamera films of the ’90s, it was money well spent. It’s not really meant to appeal to us older del Toro fans, who know he’s capable of richer and darker dreams; it’s for the boys and girls building creatures in their bedrooms, who will look at Pacific Rim, the way del Toro looked at Gojira or King Kong, and say “I wanna do something like that when I grow up. I wanna build that world, make that happen. Rrrrrgh. Dssssh.

The Purge

June 9, 2013

ThePurge_thumbLGIn a scant nine years, or so we’re told by The Purge, the U.S. government will set aside one night a year when crime will go off the books. People can do anything up to and including murder during those twelve hours with impunity. We’re also told that unemployment in this brave new world (run by “the New Founding Fathers”) is at 1%, possibly because poor people are killed by each other and by roving bands of callous rich folks, while rich people can afford to hole up for the night inside their gated communities and state-of-the-art security systems. If this is meant to be a nightmare of a future Romney (or Romney-type) America, it’s as stupid as Dinesh D’Souza’s nightmare of an Obama America. Actually, the politics of this movie are as muddled as its storytelling and world-building.

This noxious sci-fi-horror-satire stars Ethan Hawke as a well-to-do salesman for a security-system company. All his snooty neighbors have made him very rich buying his product, causing some resentment among said neighbors, in one of those neat Screenwriting 101 narrative beats that depress us because we know it’s there as a set-up for a later pay-off. Hawke and his family (wife Lena Headey, daughter Adelaide Kane, son Max Burkholder) prepare to settle in for the night of the Purge, safely behind well-fortified walls and windows. Problem: the daughter’s boyfriend shows up and sneaks into the house before it’s locked down. Additional problem: a homeless man is being pursued by a pack of bloodthirsty rich kids, and the son takes pity and lets him inside.

The rich kids want the homeless man, and their leader — a diabolical smirker played so irritatingly by Rhys Wakefield that I can’t decide whether he’s an annoying actor or playing an annoying character effectively — lays down an ultimatum to the family: Give him to us or die. And so we sigh and realize this whole futuristic milieu is just a clothesline for a routine siege thriller, ripping off elements of Straw Dogs and Panic Room and Assault on Precinct 13 — the 2005 remake of which, by the way, was written by James DeMonaco, who also wrote and directed The Purge. DeMonaco must also have seen and enjoyed The Strangers, because the killers here wear meant-to-be-chilling happy-face masks.

The Purge is only 85 minutes long but feels 185 minutes long; I sat through it in a haze of complete non-surprise. Whenever one of the Good Guys is in danger, someone off-camera will unexpectedly come in with a weapon and neutralize the threat. This happens more than a few times, until it almost becomes a running joke, though there are almost no jokes in the film, other than a teenage girl saying “penis” and a loathsome character getting a quick, bloody, unasked-for nose job. The homeless man (solidly played by Edwin Hodge) doesn’t get a name — he’s credited simply as Bloody Stranger — so, out of solidarity with him, I have declined to name any of the other characters. Not that their names matter. It’s basically Dad, Mom, girl, boy, bad man.

Bloody Stranger is black, and the family (and Bloody Stranger’s tormentors) are white, though Bloody Stranger might as well be white, for all that race (or anything substantive) is an issue in The Purge. It takes Hawke and Headey a while before they decide to do the right thing and refuse to turn Bloody Stranger over to the killers, though at one point Bloody Stranger actually volunteers to be given up so that the family can live. I don’t quite know how to unpack the notion of a poor black man agreeing to sacrifice himself for a rich white family; maybe it’s a stealth commentary on how poor black men go into the military and essentially sacrifice themselves for rich white families, or maybe it’s just lazy writing. There might be true satire here, but it would take a far less bored reviewer than me to pick away at the flab surrounding the satire. To make matters worse, every so often we’re shown a “Purge Feed” on various TVs displaying what kind of chaos is going on elsewhere in the country. All I could think was that any of those feeds hint at a more interesting movie than the one we’re stuck with.

After Earth

June 1, 2013

after_earth_wallpaper_01_wide-580Many years from now, when genetic testing at birth will foretell what career a child will mature into, there will be a summer camp for boys and girls who have been determined to be future movie directors. Late at night, at this camp, the budding filmmakers will sit around a campfire. The counselor will shine a flashlight under his or her face and spookily intone, “Gather around, children … and listen to the terrifying cautionary tale of … M. Night Shyamalan.” Eeeeek!

Once pegged as “the new Spielberg,” Shyamalan had a series of hits as writer-director: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and yes, even the much-maligned The Village made respectable bank. For a while, Shyamalan, who was legitimately talented and had an effortless command of dread-ridden mood, strutted around as if his flatulence were lavender aromatherapy. Then, oh then, came the fall: Lady in the Water (which I actually liked) followed in a diminuendo of fecklessness by The Happening and The Last Airbender.

Today — not that you’d know it by the ads — Shyamalan is back with After Earth, which proves, if nothing else, that he still values apprehensive quietude to build tension. The movie is not poorly directed. Unfortunately it has been constructed by its co-producer, Will Smith, and its star, also Will Smith, as a showcase for and passing of the sci-fi-action baton to one Jaden Smith, son of the co-producer and star. You wouldn’t really know that from the ads, either, but After Earth is basically Jaden’s Big-Ass Jungle Adventure (Occasionally Featuring a Mostly Seated Will Smith).

It’s a thousand years in the future. Earth has long been uninhabitable, so everyone has packed up and left. Their new planet, Nova Prime, is infested with ugly monsters known as Ursas, who can sense fear. General Cypher Raige (Will) has no fear, so they can’t sense him and he can kill them. Cypher’s son Kitai (Jaden) is a “ranger” in training. They go off together on a mission, but their spaceship is trashed by asteroids and they have to make an unscheduled landing on … Earth. Cypher’s legs are broken in the crash; he sends Kitai, the only other survivor, out to find the tail of the ship, which contains the beacon they need to send for help. Kitai must contend not only with the wildlife of Earth, all of which has evolved to be extremely dangerous, but with a newly hatched Ursa that had occupied an egg in the cargo hold.

Shyamalan, who along with Gary Whitta is credited with the screenplay (Will gets story credit), establishes the uneasy relationship between father and son. Dad shows no fear and hardly any other emotion; robbed of his usual facile charm, Will has little to fall back on but a rather stilted delivery that suggests that humans in the year 2113 will talk like Gina Carano in Furious 6. (Somehow, people are still using phrases like “good to go” in the far future.) Since Will is sidelined, the movie rests unsteadily on Jaden’s narrow shoulders, and he communicates a certain urgency, though not much else. The many scenes of peril are smoothly staged, with a respect for the savage alienness of the evolved life forms, though I could’ve done without the bit where Jaden tries to save some baby condors from tigers and the mama condor drags him to shelter. That adds an unwelcome anthropomorphic softness to the rest of the proceedings: Battle not with monsters, and they’ll totally save your life later, brah.

After Earth has taken a punch or two for allegedly being a Trojan horse for Scientology, but I didn’t sniff any of that. Cypher Raige’s mantra is “Danger is real; fear is a choice,” and he goes on to clarify that fear is a response to something that hasn’t happened yet and may not happen. “Take a knee,” he commands his son, and ground yourself in the present. His and his son’s real problem, though, is regret over a tragedy in the past, and they need to learn that the past is dead. If the movie stumps for any belief system, it’s Zen Buddhism. As for the overall film, it’s really an intimate two-person story, with Kitai’s mother and sister as mostly voiceless avatars of inspiration. Realists will be relieved that humans don’t find a way to return to Earth for good and co-exist with the animals; the planet remains wild and toxic, and so the film shakes out as a bitter cautionary tale. Speaking of which, that campfire story told to frightened young directors may not have such a bad ending; the movie may be flopping, but that’s not Shyamalan’s fault — he did his best with what he was given. He deserves another shot, and a stronger script.


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